Strategy too left-brained? Planner, heal thyself.

The Martin Agency's svp/group planning director makes the case for using both sides of your brain.

There’s a seductive enemy among us — certainty. Actually, it’s the illusion of certainty we’ve inappropriately bestowed upon data (big, small, fast, slow).

For the record, I’m not a data hater. As a planner, I love data. Data is rightly and unquestionably critical to what we do, and will only become more so. But I believe data needs to be put in its rightful place. It’s an input, not a panacea. The key to our past and future success as planners (as well as quants) stems from our creativity.

Sir John Hegarty has commented on the topic of data and its relationship to creatives. But I believe data seduction is an even more dangerous enemy for strategists. Especially now that "big data" has made the transition from next-big-thing to a given. 


You’ve heard it before, and it’s true: strategists/planners need to be both right- and left-brained. (Right being the creative side; left, the logical.) Planners need both sides to come up with single-minded messages, ideas and strategies that are inspiring and born from fresh insight. Single-minded messages, ideas and strategies that are clear and supported.

So what’s the problem? Shouldn’t more data mean we have more tools at our left brain’s disposal than ever before? More information to dig into? Yep. But at the same time, I’m not confident our success rate at developing remarkable strategies is increasing. I actually wonder if it’s decreasing. How could this be?

I think the problem is, well, us. 

We’re letting data get the better of us. We’re letting it affect how we think. We’re letting it consciously, and even more dangerous, subconsciously, make us more (and too) heavily left-brained.

We’re placing too much emphasis on synthesis and too little on provocation.

Too much on clarifying and too little on questioning.

Too much on reductionism and too little on possibilities.  

Too much on information and too little on imagination.

Too much on accuracy and too little on awesomeness. 

Too much on left-brain thinking and too little on right-brain thinking.

What makes this so tricky is that the increased availability and ability to manipulate data has actually made that hemisphere more vital than ever. So we can’t and shouldn’t just excise left-brain thinking. Unfortunately, it comes down to something much more difficult and delicate — constantly looking in the mirror and keeping ourselves honest.

And like a frog in a warming pot of water, if we’re not actively self-aware, we won’t notice our rational brain invisibly killing our most creative thinking (or the ideas of those around us). It’s this unnoticed, uncontested, inner threat to our creativity that scares me most.  

I wonder what would happen if more of us (brand planners, UX planners, media planners, engagement planners, comms planners, data scientists, quants, whatever your flavor of strategy) consciously led with our right brain, and not our left. 

If we listened more to our heart. Took more leaps of faith. Swung more freely. And made a point to convince others through our conviction in addition to our logic. I believe we’d be the planners we want to be more often. We’d be the correctly balanced planners our teams and clients want us to be.  

Yes, we need to be right- and left-brained. But you’ll be a better planner when you make the conscious commitment to use your left-brain powers in service of your right

You’ll know you’re on the right track when your ideas make you and those around you excited and nervous. If you’re not seeing or feeling this, flex the right side of your brain. Quick. It will make what you do more rewarding, more valuable, more impactful, more fun. 

As my CSO and friend Earl Cox has said, at its heart, planning is about taking informed leaps. Don’t let the see-it-to-believe-it cautiousness of left-brain thinking keep you from leaving the ground. And beware of the insidiously warming water that can cook away your creativity. Lead with your right brain. Your left will follow — helping you both take off, and land, smartly.

Matt Mattox is svp/group planning director at The Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia.

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